Griffey speaks to Iraqi teens in Baltimore

Griffey speaks to Iraqi teens in Baltimore

BALTIMORE -- Ken Griffey Jr. found himself in an unimaginable position Tuesday afternoon: center stage in a question-and-answer session with a group of baseball fans who knew nothing of his history or accomplishments.

Hall of Fame credentials, 22 seasons and 630 home runs meant nothing to his rapt audience, which was thrilled that any baseball player, much less one of Griffey's stature, would take time out of his day to chat about their common passion -- baseball.

"It's always important," said Griffey, when asked why he was eager to participate in the exchange. "You want your sport to grow. ... They're learning the game, and it's so refreshing to hear other countries and their take on our sport."

Griffey spoke for about a half-hour to a delegation of eight Iraqi teens and their coaches, who are in the United States to take part in a sports and cultural exchange organized by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs SportsUnited Office.

Since November 2008, the 40-year-old Griffey has functioned as a special envoy for the Department of State, joining Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. of the Orioles and figure skater Michelle Kwan. Envoys undertake diplomatic missions to teach people in foreign countries about the United States, its culture and values.

The group was supposed to take part in an on-field clinic at Camden Yards, but persistent chilly rains pushed the program indoors, where Griffey chatted with the visitors, signed autographs and posed for photographs. After the session, the Iraqis and their State Department hosts visited Sports Legends Museum adjacent to Camden Yards and then got a tour of the ballpark. It's the second Major League stadium they have seen, having also attended last Friday's Marlins-Nationals contest in Washington D.C. at Nationals Park.

But Tuesday's event gave the youngsters an opportunity to get up close and personal with a slugger destined for Cooperstown, even if they really didn't know much about Griffey's prodigious past.

"I was shocked when I knew that he was one of the best players ever," marveled Ali, a 16-year-old from Baghdad who started playing baseball in 2009. Ali's physical education teacher at school is a baseball fan who convinced students to form a baseball team, something unheard of in soccer-crazed Iraq.

Griffey, wearing jeans, an untucked striped button-down shirt and tennis shoes, could have passed for a curious visitor to the auxiliary clubhouse, where the entourage was patiently awaiting his arrival seated in folding chairs. But when he pulled up a chair and plopped down backwards -- like he likes to wear his caps -- in front of the kids, Griffey immediately became one of them.

"I like his personality and how he carries himself," said Aseel, a young girl from Baghdad who has played baseball for three years and likes the Red Sox. "We know the teams in my country but not the players."

Perhaps that's why Griffey, when peppered with questions from inquisitive teens, was a little surprised with one of the first thrown his way: What is your name?

"My name?" he asked, before a translator clarified the question, telling him the kids were asking what his full name was.

"When I was a kid, it was George Kenneth Griffey Jr.," he continued. "Now most people call me Junior. The older I get, they seem to start taking names away from me."

Following a quick translation, the group erupted in laughter. From there, Griffey explained that he was an outfielder and designated hitter -- the translator stumbled when trying to get across the notion of a hitter who takes the place of a pitcher in the batting order -- and talked about his introduction to the game.

Keep in mind that the kids had no idea that Griffey was a second-generation Major Leaguer, the son of former Reds, Yankees, Braves and Mariners outfielder Ken Griffey, or that father and son played together in Seattle in 1990-91, once becoming the only father-and-son tandem to hit back-to-back home runs.

"I enjoyed baseball as a kid, I just wanted to play," Griffey said. "I was playing basketball, football, soccer -- whatever was in season, I did. As I grew older, I picked [baseball as] the sport I wanted to play. Having a dad that was a professional athlete made it easier."

"The smile on the face when you ask them about baseball and what I do, that says a lot. These kids want to go out there and play our sport."
-- Ken Griffey Jr.

His advice to the Iraqi players, who are still trying to grasp the subtleties of the game that American kids take for granted?

"Keep playing ... When you enjoy something, you want to do it all the time," Griffey said.

Using the World Baseball Classics as examples -- and noting that teammate Ichiro Suzuki still talks smack about Japan winning a competition based on America's pastime -- Griffey added: "It's not how big you are or how strong you are. It's how you play between the lines."

When someone asked Griffey if he had hit many home runs, Griffey told them matter-of-factly that he was at 630 and counting, drawing oohs, aahs and applause from an unknowing audience. When asked how many championships his team has won, Griffey didn't pull punches.

"We're still working on a championship," he smiled.

Griffey spoke about training methods, told the group he played for love of the game and not money and was presented with an Iraqi baseball jersey as a gift. Only when someone covered the Adidas logo on it did Griffey -- who has a contact to promote Nike sportswear -- don the shirt.

Griffey, in turn, presented each youth player with a Nike bag filled with baseball cards, sunflower seeds, a Baby Ruth bar and a ball-and-bat keychain. Each kid also got a replica Griffey jersey T-shirt bearing the No. 24 he wears with the Mariners.

Ali's T-shirt was an extra large, several sizes too large for the thin youngster. He said it would be a treasured memento of his trip to the United States, along with the ball and glove he's already received.

"Back home," Ali explained, "they don't have these kinds of things, new things, to play [with]."

Griffey understands the role baseball can play, especially for children, in an area of the world where strife and war are too common.

"They have probably seen things that, hopefully, I'll never see," he said. "The smile on the face when you ask them about baseball and what I do, that says a lot. These kids want to go out there and play our sport."

Griffey hopes he has the opportunity to do that -- on Iraqi soil. His role as an envoy, he said, could make that a possibility.

"Maybe I get the chance to go over there ... and be able to show them," Griffey said.

Pete Kerzel is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.